MINDFUL MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELING

Overcoming Social Anxiety Post-Pandemic

Social anxiety, while a legitimate clinical diagnosis, has been used more colloquially in the wake of Covid. Perhaps, as the holidays are fast approaching, you are feeling nervous to “re-enter” society, socialize with friends, attend large gatherings and family get togethers, and meet new people. This experience has become the norm for many adults in the post pandemic era, and managing this anxiety is a focus of much of our clinical work these days. 

For the past (almost) two years now, people have been struggling with fear and uncertainty about their own health and their loved ones’ health, and dealing with the social isolation that comes from public health measures such as quarantining and physical distancing. Now, as more people get vaccinated, infection rates slow and restrictions loosen across the country, many are experiencing the joy of finally reconnecting with family and friends. Yet, at the same time, many also are experiencing feelings that they didn’t expect–like anxiety about returning to social situations. Fear and anxiety is a normal response that tells ourselves that there is a perceived threat that we might want to attend to. The threat level that people perceive about returning to social situations after the pandemic will vary from person to person, and an individual’s perception may even change from day to day. To work through these feelings, it can be helpful to take the time before a social event to think through exactly what parts of the upcoming interaction are making you feel particularly anxious, then strategize about what you can do to mitigate your concerns.

For example, if you have concerns about an upcoming event or a gathering, talk to the host about those concerns early. Get the information you need to make a decision about your comfort level, and don’t be afraid to communicate that decision. This may mean having to limit the time spent at a social gathering or even declining an invitation. It is important to have honest conversations with each other; it takes a certain amount of bravery and courage to be honest about how you feel, but giving your host the benefit of the doubt provides an opportunity for you to feel safe and respected.

It’s understandable if you don’t want to discuss your social anxiety with every single person that you know, however it can definitely help to tell closer, more supportive friends how you are feeling. This way, if you just don’t feel up to attending a social event, then you can simply be open about that rather than feeling guilty about making excuses. And once your friends understand the situation, you may find that they’re more accommodating about arranging ‘lower pressure’ meetups that you can all enjoy. It might also be helpful to reflect on which relationships you want to keep in your life after lockdown. While it is true that no friendship is perfect, if a friend or friends repeatedly triggered your anxiety, it could be worth examining those relationships. For instance, were there certain groups of people that you never quite felt accepted by? Or did you feel that you were walking on eggshells with some individuals or that they weren’t being ‘real’ with you? If that’s the case, then it’s worth considering whether you want to continue maintaining those friendships post-Covid, or let them go and focus on relationships that feel more enriching instead. Obviously, it’s important not to throw away good friendships over resolvable frustrations, yet it can be useful to take time to reflect on the effect that some friends have on you.

Another tip to manage social anxiety in the aftermath of the pandemic is to ease yourself back into socializing gradually. Maybe you aren’t yet ready to jump right into a concert or birthday party, so make a list of the activities that feel more manageable to you right now. Some ideas you could try are a dinner with a few friends, outdoor activities like apple picking, ice skating, or horseback riding, and more active endeavors such as tennis, bike riding, or hiking. It can also be helpful to bargain with yourself, for instance, make an agreement that you will go to a meetup for an hour, but can leave after that if you want. A time limit can make things feel a lot more manageable. However, you may well find that once you’re there, it feels a lot easier than you thought it would.

A big part of social anxiety can be the assumptions that we make, for instance, that other people are more comfortable or self-assured than we are. That is why questioning our old beliefs and replacing them with new ones can really help with managing symptoms. This might include, ‘I’m not the only person who feels this way’, ‘My friends love me for who I am’, and ‘My feelings are valid’. It can also be helpful to try soothing activities before going out such as listening to relaxing music, meditating (even a 2 minute meditation can be calming and helpful!), drinking a cold beverage, exercising, and imagining the outing going smoothly and having a great time. 

How Do I Overcome Social Anxiety? 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is the leading therapeutic treatment for treating Social Anxiety Disorder in both adults and children. CBT places heavy emphasis on the use of exposure therapy. Exposure consists of therapist-guided support for clients to engage with the feared stimuli or situation, reduce their avoidance behaviors, enhance their ability to tolerate fearful situations, promote new learning of social safety, and enhance self-efficacy in navigating social situations. Through both new and repeated exposures, individuals learn new information about the feared situation (e.g., they can tolerate the anxiety it provokes, avoidance is not the only coping response to anxiety), which helps them overcome avoidance and related challenges. 

How Do I Know if my Anxiety Warrants Seeking Therapy? 

Anxiety and fear cross the line when they cause dysfunction, impairment, or severe distress. If you are finding that your daily life is interrupted or more difficult as a result of the feelings you’re experiencing, it may be a sign that you would benefit from talking to a professional. Clinicians can discuss your symptoms and circumstances with you and help you build skills and strategies to conquer your fears, manage your anxiety, and live life more seamlessly. Contact us to schedule a fifteen minute complementary consultation call and schedule a time to come in and begin improving your quality of life.